Community Garden Feeds the Homeless
By Craig Idlebrook | Sep 27, 2012
It all started with a cabbage seedling — a science project sent home with eager third-graders in Summerville, South Carolina. Inevitably, some of the seedlings didn’t make it into the ground. Others were planted and forgotten; a few were cared for and thrived. Still one girl, then-9-year-old Katie Stagliano, made an impact with her seedling that has since affected hundreds of people.
With her brother’s help, Katie planted the seedling in her family’s backyard. She fertilized and watered it, as well as installed a chicken-wire perimeter fence to keep the deer out. It grew huge, weighing in at roughly 40 pounds.
“When she brought in that cabbage, it changed all our lives,” says Stacy Stagliano, Katie’s mother.
What does one do with a 40-pound cabbage? Katie remembered how her father told her at the dinner table to never take more than she could eat, so she asked her mother if she could donate the cabbage to feed the hungry. Stacy found a local soup kitchen that could take it. The organizer asked Katie to deliver it and later help serve the food made from it. Katie got to see the impact of growing the cabbage, and many guests at the soup kitchen thanked her for her efforts.
That day, a light bulb switched on in Katie’s head. If one cabbage could feed so many, she thought, what about a community garden? What about several gardens? Katie dedicated herself to growing fresh food for the hungry. It seemed a perfect way to make a difference and help the homeless.
“It was fun, it was easy, and it was something a 10-year-old girl could do with her friends,” Katie, now 13, says.
Katie and her family started an organization called Katie’s Krops and created six community gardens to supply fresh food for the hungry. The gardens vary in size, from her backyard garden to a school garden the size of a football field to hundreds of blueberry plants and two greenhouses at a local farm. Both Katie and her mother cannot believe that the project has grown so big; it was never their intention.
“It’s just grown and grown and grown,” Stacy says. “One door opens and you see the possibilities.”
From the sound of it, Katie always had the determination to create an altruistic gardening organization, even if she didn’t start with a deep gardening background. Her parents had often listened when Katie expressed a desire to learn. When she wanted to know more about drought, she and her mother travelled to a nearby lake that had dried up. After the trip, Katie worked with her school to boost water conservation.
Still, like all gardeners, Katie had to make her own share of mistakes. For example, she tried to establish a community garden plot on a hill where there were fire ants. The plot had to be abandoned when the ants spread through the cabbage. She also has given up trying to grow broccoli and cauliflower, crops that always stunted in her garden, in favor of plants that have brought a higher yield and have been easier to grow, such as eggplant.
“It’s just small things like that,” she says, “learning from those mistakes.” But the organization’s reach would have been limited were it not for Katie’s ability to wrangle others to help or donate, including her parents, a master gardener, and many complete strangers. When she needed a tiller, for example, she wrote a persuasive letter to company officials at Troy-Bilt, who provided her with one.
People who know Katie say she is as comfortable talking to a room filled with hundreds of people as she is talking to a crowd of two. Even though she admits to not putting enough time into fundraising, Katie says her project has been blessed with the resources to move forward.
Bob Baker is a local farmer who didn’t know what he was getting into when he agreed to help Katie. He first met her at a public event after hearing about Katie’s Krops in the local media. She asked for his help, and Baker, who is inclined to altruistic acts, couldn’t refuse. He soon found himself teaching her how to ride a tractor and donating space at his farm for her crops.
“Anytime you see a kid trying to do something, you’ve got to help out,” Baker says.
He’s not alone. Katie’s former science teacher, Cory Fuller, quit her full-time teaching job to become a part-time garden education director for Katie’s Krops. Fuller says she loves how engaged children get when they work on planting a garden for the hungry.
Baker and others who know Katie say she has the uncanny ability to not be intimidated by the possibility of failure. Whenever she is faced with an argument against doing more, she simply counters, “Why not?” Fate takes care of the rest.
“She took a step and somebody helped her out,” Baker says. “She took another step and another step, and now the ground she’s covering is getting bigger.”
The ground she’s now covering reaches beyond her state. Katie’s Krops has awarded grants to similar gardening proposals in other states. A Katie’s Krops blog is filled with articles of children using the grant money to start gardens to feed those in need.
Katie’s life differs more than slightly from the norm of a 13-year-old girl. She must balance travel, volunteer work at the local soup kitchen, and gardening with a social life. But she’s a normal girl who admits to wanting her parents to buy her a new iPad or find time to hang out with her friends on the weekends. What sets her apart is her commitment to do what’s needed to grow food for those less fortunate.
She doesn’t see herself tiring from the work, and she looks forward to when she can drive so she can spend more time in her six gardens.
“I’m having such a fun time,” she says. “I don’t think I would give it up for anything.”
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